Book Review: The American Heritage Dictionary, 5th Edition

I’m a logophile, which according to my new dictionary, is “one who appreciates and enjoys words.”  I think that pretty much sums up all of us here at Random Misanthrope.  One would be hard-pressed to find a greater cabal of bibliophiles.  I used the word cabal because I’ve always wanted to use that in a sentence, and we are plotting to take over the literary world after all.

When my dear sister gave me an Amazon gift card for Christmas I thought long and hard about what to purchase.  That I would purchase a book was a given for sure, but what type of book?  Some of you might know my penchant for non-fiction, so it is with no stretch of the imagination that I would settle for something in that genre.

I have always coveted the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED — all 20 volumes of it!  Unfortunately my sister’s generous gift card fell short of the thousand dollars needed to purchase such a treasure.  Not to be deterred from owning a comprehensive dictionary of some kind, I stumbled across an article in the New York Times regarding the recently released 5th Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary.  Not only did two thousand plus pages worth of words intrigue me, but that it had taken a decade to update was equally impressive.  Even better was the fact that at $60 dollars it was well within my gift card’s price range.  I was even more pleased when Amazon was selling it for $38 dollars!  I don’t think I’ve ever clicked on an online purchase button quicker.

A few days later the tome of words arrived.  At 8 pounds shipping weight and 11.3 x 8.8 x 2.4 inches, this is an impressive book to carry around.  But as we all know, looks are not everything: it is what is inside that counts.

The first trial of my lovely dictionary came at work when my boss lamented to me that the local newspaper had misspelled an ad which he had placed.  I did not doubt for a second the veracity of his claim, but as the good Ronald Reagan once remarked about the Russians: “Trust, but verify.”  The word in question was in memorium, which is what the newspaper had printed.  My boss was adamant that it was spelled in memoriam and vehemently defended his position.  To avoid a prolonged logomachy, out from my briefcase came the new American Heritage Dictionary.  A cursory look-up vindicated my boss and provided a J’accuse damnation to the local newspaper editors.

Since then I’ve had the pleasure of looking up several more words, all of which were found in my dictionary.  The biggest workout came while reading the late Christopher Hitchens’ autobiography, Hitch-22.  Not even halfway through the book I stumbled across words such as: dyspeptic, polemical, ontology, lambent, milliner, inchoate, taciturnity, portentous, anomic, lugubrious, scintilla, doggerel, donnish, and apotropaically to mention just a few —  The American Heritage Dictionary defined them all.

When it comes to looking up words I am old-school, I prefer picking up a real book and turning the pages.  But not everybody is like me and the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary were wise to include a free companion app with their dictionary, a $24.99 dollar value!  Inside the hardcover is a sheet containing a code which you can redeem online and  download the app for either an iPhone/iPod, iPad, or Android phone.  Please be advised that you can only use this code once, so if you have all three of these devices, you can only activate the app on one of these, unfortunately.  Sad as this might be, the convenience of having 175,000 definitions, 4,000 full-color images, and 69,000 real-voice pronunciations at your fingertips is unbeatable.  I decided to download and activate the dictionary app on my Android smartphone and run it through its paces.  The first word I punched in was Kokopelli in honor of my anthropologist friend Frances, and lo and behold, the dictionary had it!  Impressive…

As I mentioned before The American Heritage Dictionary contains over 4,000 full-color and black-and-white images which is great for people like me who like to flip through pages and browse.  This morning I was flipping through the dictionary and my two and a half year old son screamed in delight when he saw a picture of a llama.  Later that afternoon I screamed in delight when I stumbled across one of my favorite Swedish authors, Selma Lagerlöf.  This for me solidified The American Heritage Dictionary as one of my favorite go-to books.

A good dictionary should never be static, and like society as a whole, should endeavor to evolve.  Ten years since the last edition with 10,000 new words and senses, The American Heritage Dictionary has some surprising additions.  My personal favorite is: asshat.

In summation, The American Heritage Dictionary, 5th Edition is a winner in my book.  A perfect companion for logophiles who cannot afford to buy a complete set of the Oxford English Dictionary.  I could not be happier with this purchase and would recommend it to all bibliophiles and aspiring writers.